Update: If you read this post a little while ago, there was an error in the formatting of my notes that messed up this post.
Racism scares me. I don’t mean just the history of and the idea of white supremacy. That deeply concerns me after Christchurch taught us that it can manifest itself in the form of
They don’t scare me because I am a white male. I recognize and acknowledge the way my background situated me to think about people, particularly African Americans in a way that implicitly communicated race, rather than geography and economics, as the primary explanations for the reports of crime in the news in Jackson, MS.1 I recognize the way that two or the four most personally vulnerable events I have ever felt in my life, one time by a cult leader on my college campus and one time in a near mugging, were done by people with brown skin and I have to deal with those feelings in such a way to not allow those individuals and my memories of them to determine my views of African Americans.2 While I don’t like the reality of such thoughts in the back of my head, I know such doesn’t make me a racist. Racism comes when we ignore and rationalize away the problem, not when we acknowledge it.
What makes me scared about racism, however, is the way in which many people try to address the pernicious effects of race. Although,
From my own observations, experiences, and learning, the two most common responses are the white hero and the white denier. The white denier is the one we are more readily familiar with. They come with various degrees and intensities, but they grow readily uncomfortable when discussing matters of race. Bring up social scientific findings, such as how a person with a black sounding name is less likely to be hired than a person with a white sounding name, even after all the qualifications are the same, and they engage in various forms of minimization and diversions. The motivations behind such can be diverse. It can be cloaked racial hostility, but I don’t think, or at least I don’t want to believe, that is the motivation much of the time. Rather, I think there are at least three big other motivations behind minimizing the idea that racism still has a real impact in American life: 1) discomfort in recognizing one’s own privilege, 2) fear of being devalued, and 3) troubles integrating conversations with race with the portrayal of race presented to them the news and their experiences.
The first one is much of what operates behind the rhetoric of “white privilege” and the resistance to the concept. (White) American culture inculcated a sense and value for being a person who works hard, which stems back to the Protestant work ethic that Max Weber. American and Protestants are not the only people who recognize the value of hard work, but it became a driving value during the period of economic and social expansion in European and American history. The result is that hard work was for white people very fruitful in improving one’s position and life. To tell a white person that they are ‘privileged’ isn’t just to say something about race: it is an attack at one of the moral ideals that many white Americans have been inculcated with a sense of. “White privilege” is not intended to deny the role that a person’s hard work contributes to their well-being, but it more so points out how one’s hard work becomes more successful than for others because others are more likely to be negatively judged in virtue of ethnicity. But that isn’t what many white people hear: they hear people denying people’s hard work and industriousness.
The second motivation behind denying and minimizing the realities of racism stems from the social and moral fear people have when they feel they are being labeled with some sort of moral wrong or evil. To be a “racist” is a heinous sin in most of the West, and makes one deemed worthy of derision and contempt. This stems from the fact that our prototypes of racism stem from slavery and Jim Crow laws in the American South along with
The third motivation is more so the type of problem that we all face when it comes to knowledge, our understandings are situated within the life perspective we have. White people who live in white communities, which largely emerges as a result of economics although race can play a factor in some ways, often have a very limited experience of people with black skin. They may have some distant connections with some African Americans that they know (“I have black ‘friends’.”) but their experience and conversations with them are very limited. Consequently, their understanding
In other others, the white denier can be motivated by cultural values, fears rooted in self-protection, and the dissonance that exists when one incorporates information from a different perspective than one is accustomed. Sometimes, hatred can be a motivation for such denialism, but the optimist in me wants to believe that these other factors are a much more prevalent factor. However, I do need to make a note of sober caution and mild fear that the tactics of white denialism can, in the context of racial hostility, lead to the emergence of hatred. So, while the motivations behind the denial of the present realities of racism are complex, and most of the time do not lead to hatred for most people, addressing these conversations about race are important for the long term well being of race relations in the United States.
But this leads me to the problem of the “white hero.” Latent within this is one of the common characteristics that comes with being privileged: the opportunity you feel to come to save the day and then reap the benefits of such an action. To be clear, the problem isn’t trying to help other people, including people of different ethnicity, social classes, etc. The problem is associated with the social status of acting like a “hero” conveys.
One motivating factor for becoming a “white hero” is the issue of white guilt. But I want to be clear how I am using the phrase “white guilt” here before progressing onwards. I am not referring to the way the concept of “white guilt” has been used to explain away all forms of political advocacy that conservatives felt problematic. I want to sift the substantive, emotional content of the concept without feeling like I need to fit my intuitions into a conservative point of view. By “white guilt” I am referring simply to the negative emotions white people feel by association
The problem comes in, however, when we don’t respond to such white guilt well. For the white denier, this can lead to an attempt to protect oneself from moral incrimination, as already discussed. This tendency can intensify if one consciously or unconsciously feels any sort of negative feeling towards a minority ethnicity, particularly black people. The combination of white guilt and the (sub)conscious awareness of negative thoughts can lead to a cascade emotional guilt and a personal need to “protect” or “purge” oneself from this feeling of moral guilt.
However, in many cases, rather than being a white denier, being a white hero can also be a way of not adequately addressing the feelings of white guilt. This can lead to some of the political characterizations that have existed around the concept of “white guilt,” but again, I don’t want to try to say all the conservative understanding of “white guilt” is accurate. Principally, I want to avoid that because this feeling of associational guilt can lead people to very helpful responses to the problem of racism and that can lead them to advocate for some “progressive” or “liberal” causes, even if they are politically conservative.6 But, I would suggest more often than not, this form of response isn’t that of the “white hero.”
For the white hero, they have a tendency to use their advocacy against racism beyond any sense of compassion for black people from one of two motivations: 1) to compensate for their guilt and 2) to achieve greater status.
When we act to compensate for strong negative emotions, we tend to engage in exaggerated behaviors that would seem far out of proportion to what most people without such a feeling would normally see. So, a person feeling white guilt would be more likely to compensate through a) projecting their own feelings onto people to emotionally purge themselves of this feeling that creates guilt, b) virtue signal how concerned they are about racism, and c) exaggerated attempts to not appear racist. Now a small degree of this would be a bit normal part of the process of dealing
However, there is a second, and I would suggest a much more pernicious problem: that of achieving social status through being the white hero. It can be joined to a feeling of white guilt and compensation, but it can also be a manipulation upon a) the idea of being against racism and b) upon the white guilt in other people. I would refer to this type of behavior as a “moral narcissism” in that people exploit certain moral values and feelings for their own gain. However, it is possible that this “moral narcissism” can be part of a person’s own response against their own feelings of white guilt.
In this scenario, a white person actively tears people down other white people for being racist. It is a way in which they can manipulate their own white privilege to speak against racism to benefit themselves, as it is much safer to speak against racism as a white person than as a black person. The severity with which such accusations are made varies, as some people are only mildly motivated by needs for social status whereas others focus almost exclusively on it.
However, beyond the moral negatives that comes with any form of narcissism, it presents two problems in addressing the realities of racism. Firstly, it treats minorities as a tool for the white person to benefit. The status-driven white hero is not concerned about the benefit of the people they supposedly advocate for; they will not remedy the problem of privilege insofar as it is not something people will notice. Rather, they will accumulate more privilege and status for themselves in the name of fighting racism. Secondly, however, these type of people also lead to greater defensiveness in white people to accept the realities of racism, as they have experience the rhetoric of race in such a threatening and hostile manner. It literally feels less safe to think and speak about matters of race.
It is this aspect that creates the most fear
To bring this to a theological conclusion, I find Jesus’ own beatitude of being “poor in spirit” to be a useful way to approach the realities of race and race relations. Now, I don’t want to try to appropriate ethnicity in the phrase “black in spirit” for a whole host of reasons. Nor do I want to make a direct equation with being black and Jesus beatitudes as I think Jesus speaks to poverty for a reason. And I don’t want to foster a sense of dependent attitude as if black people have to rely on white people that the language of poverty can convey. But, just as Jesus never acted the crusading hero of the poor, but rather he lived with and loved them, empathized with and even identifies with their struggles, an attitude by which whites can live with, love, empathize, and identify with some the impacts of racism on African Americans is a healthier way to address the feelings of guilt. However, this takes time and doesn’t come through the strength of one’s actions or one’s arguments. One doesn’t accomplish it by being the white hero or trying to defend yourself from any feeling of guilt, but allow the feelings of associational guilt to motivate one to hear, to listen, to learn, and to grow together.